|Themes > Science > Chemistry > About Chemistry Generalities > Alchemy in Islamic Times > General Review of Muslim Chemistry|
Until the time of Jabir, chemistry was 'without form and void'. The solid technical knowledge of the craftsmen was lost in the vapourings of occultists, and if there were any men with a more reasonable view of chemical science, its aims, its objects and its methods, we find no record of them. By the efforts of Jabir and Razi, the two Muslim chemical geniuses, much of the vast accretion of unbridled speculation was cleared away, and chemistry first began to take shape as a true science. Experimental fact was at last informed with the beginnings of reasonable theory, while on the practical side a workmanlike scheme of classification was evolved and a divide range of substances was carefully investigated and systematically characterized. The common laboratory methods of distillation, sublimation, calcination, reduction, solution and crystallization were improved and their general purposes well understood. The refinement of metals, by cupellation and in other ways, was brought to a high degree of perfection, and the careful assay of gold and silver was accompanied by extraordinary accuracy in methods of weighing and in the determination of specific gravity.
On the theoretical side, the idea that 'base' metals could be transmuted into gold or silver overshadowed every other. The generally accepted belief was that elixirs could be prepared which, by an action we should now describe as catalytic, would convert practically unlimited amounts of lead, mercury, tin, copper, or even iron into silver first and then into gold. There were alternative theories as to the means whereby transmutation could be effected, but as we may more conveniently study these in their later developments a mere reference to them in passing may be sufficient at the moment. The philosophical justification for the almost universal credence in the possibility of transmutation is to be found ultimately in the Aristotelian conception of the Four Elements and proximately in Jabir's theory that all metals are composed of sulphur and mercury. Its practical justification lay in the elegant manner in which it explained numerous phenomena and stimulated unceasing research.
Chemistry, in the work of the great chemists from Jabir to the time of Avicenna, was concerned chiefly not so much with alchemy but with concrete technical matters such as the development of apparatus, the preparations of, and the study of their reactions. The development of chemistry in the period, although almost entirely empirical, was of great importance in that a new high level was attained in the accumulation of chemical data. The previous period of such great growth had taken place long before 3000-500 B.C., in Mesopotamia. In many ways, Muslim chemistry grew in the same manner as it did in Mesopotamia with the difference that the Arabs were more careful in their larger number of experiments, made careful notations of their laboratory results, and developed their laboratory apparatus to a high point of perfection. This was the real beginning of scientific method in the science of chemistry. Not only did the Muslims organize their scientific knowledge as did ancient Mesopotamians before them, but they used experiments to gain scientific data. Because of this accent on experiment in later times, there is much more practical discussion of the categories of matter in the Muslim literature than may be found in the Mesopotamian literature where appearances were of prime consideration.
Alongside experiment, logical speculation took its place in chemical science as an important adjunct. Although Muslim theorizing was grossly inadequate, it was, however, carried out by important chemists in an effort to explain results of laboratory work and not necessarily to add to the so-called 'natures'. This was a distinct Muslim advancement over their Greek, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian predecessors.
1. G. Sarton, "Introduction to the
history of science," Williams and Wilkins, Baltimore, 1927